Are you tired of me yammering about computer chips and how important they are? Too bad.
For a host of reasons, shortages of chips are limiting production of everything from cars to video game consoles and maybe airplanes(?!). Several big automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, have slowed or temporarily stopped manufacturing because they couldn’t get the required computer chips.
Let me walk us through what’s happening, how this chip hiccup might affect what we buy and some advice on what people can do.
As I wrote earlier, computer chips are the essential electronic brains or digital memory in jet fighters, satellites, smartphones, refrigerators and more. Because making computer chips is complicated, it’s tricky for factories to respond quickly when demand suddenly increases or dips.
That became a problem during the pandemic. Drastic buying surges for some types of electronics, including laptops, printers and video game consoles, made it tough for companies to have enough materials and manufacturing capacity to keep up. That’s why you may have found it difficult or more expensive than you expected to buy a computer for your child’s school or a webcam to work from home.
But the shortage that struck first in consumer electronics has spread to other goods.
The New York Times’ reporters have been writing about the difficulty that automakers have had getting all of the computer chips they need. When a brief slowdown in car sales at the start of the pandemic boomeranged into a sales increase, automakers and their chip suppliers were caught off guard. Some chipmakers had already shifted their focus to the electronics industry.
The shortages for auto chips have now attracted the attention of government officials, and chipmakers are racing to respond. But it can take many months for a chip to go from raw materials to the final product.
Automakers’ pain trickles down to us, too. It could become harder to find the model you want or to buy it at a price you can stomach.
And now, perhaps, the chip shortages that first hit electronics, then moved on to cars, will whipsaw back into electronics. Stephen Baker, who tracks the consumer hardware industry for market research firm NPD Group, told me that the chip shortages are “a big deal.” He said it probably wouldn’t become easier to find the electronics that were already in high demand.
For shoppers, I’ll relay the wisdom of my colleagues: Be patient. You may have to shop around. And maybe try not to break anything important because it may be tougher than you expect to find a replacement. (I joked to a colleague about encasing my smartphone in Bubble Wrap. Maybe I wasn’t kidding?)
Let me leave you with an overarching question: Are our supply chains too fragile?
In the past year, we’ve seen bottlenecks for high-grade medical masks, computer chips, toilet paper and more. Maybe this crisis is an opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of having sprawling global networks of parts and slim quantities of products on hand — both of which leave little room for unpredictability.
We’ve seen the risks of this before, but there have simply been too many cost advantages to ditch our “just in time” manufacturing and retail economies. Maybe that calculation will change. As we’ve seen this year, when there is an inevitable big disruption, it means that we’re at the mercy of the cascading effects of supply hiccups.